tv Religion Ethics Newsweekly WHUT November 15, 2009 10:00pm-10:30pm EST
>> abernethy: coming up, a muslim chaplain who had met major nidal hasan talks about islam and u.s. military service. and, the supreme court considers whether criminals who are still juveniles should get life sentences without parole. plus, a mother's story of life, grief and faith. jeni stepanek, mother of the late poet mattie stepanek, says god gives her the strength to keep mattie's messages alive. >> hope is real, peace is possible and life is worthy. captioning sponsored by the lilly endowment
>> abernethy: welcome. i'm bob abernethy. it's good to have you with us. the house of representatives approved controversial healthcare legislation that would put strict bans on insurance for abtions. analysts say the proposal would cause many insurance plans to stop offering abortion coverage. the vote came after an intense lobbying campaign by several conservative religious groups and the u.s. conference of catholic bishops. many bishops individually urged lawmakers to limit abortion coverage.
the next step is debate in the senate and the bishops say they will remain closely involved. next week, pope benedict the 16th and the leader of the anglican communion, archbishop of canterbury rowan williams, will meet in rome. the long-scheduled summit comes just after the vatican released details of its effort to make it easier for anglicans to become catholics. the chch's teaching on celibacy for priests will not change, the vatican said, even as more anglican priests will be allowed into the catholic priesthood on a "case-by-case" basis. the rules also prohibit former catholic priests who converted to anglicanism and married from returning to the catholic clergy. president obama will be visiting china this week. human rights activists are urging him to push for more religious freedom and other reforms when he meets with that nation's leaders.
meanwhile, the chinese are asking obama to reconsider his plans to meet the dalai lama, who opposes chinese control of tibet. obama is expected to meet the tibetan spiritual leader after the president returns to washington. before obama left for asia, he visited fort hood, texas, where 13 members of the military were killed, allegedly by an army psychiatrist who is an american- born muslim. >> no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving god looks upon them with favor. and for what he has done, we know that the killer wl be met with justice in this world and the next. >> abernethy: the fort hood killings have raised questions about whether the accused shooter's zeal about islam could have played any role in the tragedy, and about being muslim in the u.s. military. imam yahya hendi is the muslim chaplain at both the national
naval medical center in bethesda, maryland and at georgetown university in washington. he had met major hasan.imam, welcome. is there anything in what you've heard or read about major hasan that could explain to you what happened? >> actually, no. it is a shock for me. i had met major hasan a few times and every time i met him, i understood him to be a loyal american, lo and he wanted to join the military in support of america. >> abernethy: is there anything about his being a very devout muslim that could explain to you his shooting? >> for me, it was. >> abernethy: his alleged shooting. >> for me, what happened on that thursday has nothing to do with islam. islam does not stand in support of such shooting. actually, according to islamic
law, what he did was criminal, immoral, and unethical, and against the teachings of islam in every way, shape, and form. >> abernethy: when he apparently... when he began shooting, he shouted out "allahu akbar," in arabic, "god is great." >> yeah. you know muslims use that phrase, "allahu akbar," like "oh, gosh" in english, "oh, my lord, oh, my god." it does not really have a religious motivation always and all the time. >> abernethy: you have counseled a lot of muslim soldiers and marines. is there any conflict for any of them at least sometimes between being muslim and then having to go someplace where they are fighting muslims? >> you know overall, most of the soldiers we have and muslim soldiers in the u.s. military are loyal americans and have joined the military to defeat terrorism, to defeat extremism.
after all on september 11, we were attacked and islam gives muslims and america the right to defend itself against terrorism and, therefore, muslims should be proud and are proud of their service in the u.s. military. >> abernethy: there's a concept if i understand it, within islam called the ummah, which is a sense of intense brotherhood with all other muslims, and does that conflict with having to go into afghanistan? >> actually, no. if i love my brother and when he does something wrong, islam requires me to stop him from his wrongdoing. you know, prophet muhammad and in the koran we are told that we are to join good and forbid evil. what happened on september 11 and the aftermath of that terrorism, extremism-- what is happening in pakistan, suicide bombing, and in afghanistan, is against the teachings of the koran and muslims are required to join any military, in self
defense, and to defeat terrorism. >> abernethy: what about in the muslim community in this country? what's going on there since the shootings? >> you know, american muslims feel really proud of being american and, at the same time, are suspected on daily basis. their religion is under siege; their community is under siege because of suspects. what we want america to do is to understand that we are a part of the fabric of america. we love america, our country, and we want to fight with everyone in defense of america. >> abernethy: imam yahya hendi, many thanks. >> thank you.
>> abernethy: this past week, the supreme court heard arguments about whether it's constitutional to sentence juveniles who commit crimes other than murder to life in prison without parole. tim o'brien reports. >> reporter: 23-year-old kenneth young had just turned 15 when he committed a string of hotel robberies in the tampa area, acting at the direction of 25- year-1x$)p(tuq:haethea, a neighborhood drug dealer with a long arrest record. bethea would hold the gun, yng would take the money. >> the only thing he told me to do was get the money and the tapes, and that was it. >> reporter: what tapes? >> like video tapes from the video cameras. >> reporter: the security camera? >> yes, sir. >> reporter: and you did that? >> yes sir. >> reporter: young says he had little choice. his mother was addicted to crack cocaine and had stolen drugs from bethea.
he believed her life was in danger. >> he threated to hurt my momma. >> reporter: what did he say he'd do? >> kill her. >> reporter: if you didn't go along. >> yes, sir. >> reporter: young's mother blames herself for her son's problems. >> yes, i do. if it wasn't for the drugs. >> reporter: but that didn't keep kenneth from being sentenced to life in prison with no parole. >> what we see is what we get in the way of a defendant. we get a person who shows no remorse. we get a person who is smiling in court-- thinks it's funny. we have a person who, while he is under consideration for a life sentence, is flipping signals to people in the gallery. >> reporter: he's only 15, barely. >> we have a person who gives no appearance of deserving any slack atsoever and sentence him. so we give him a life sentence. >> reporter: florida, like many states, allows prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults for serious crimes, and the state legislature did away with all
parole in 1995. as a result, there are now 77 inmates in the state serving life without parole for non- homicides committed when they were under 18, more than in all other states combined. paolo annino runs the children in prison project at florida state university. >> this is no different from slavery or other major moral issues. placing children in adult prisons for life is a death sentece for children. do we want to do that as a society? do we want to ignore our western traditions? >> reporter: this week the u.s. supreme court took up that question in two separate cases involving terrance graham, who at age 17 committed armed burglaries while on parole for a previous armed robbery, and joe sullivan who was convicted of raping and robbing a 72-year old woman when he was only thirteen. >> we don't think there's any dispute that sentencing a 13-
year-old to life in prison without parole is unusual. it's happened only twice for non-homicides. we also think to say that any child of 13, that "you're only fit to die in prison" is cruel. >> reporter: but stevenson ran into some skeptical justices, including antonin scalia: "i don't see why it is any crueler to an adolescent that it is to an adult. where do you draw the line?" justice sam alito: "what about brutal rapes, assaults that render the victim paraplegic, but not dead. the person shows no remorse. the worst case you can possibly imagine? that person must at some point be made eligible for parole?" "you are correct, your honor," answered brian gowd the attorney for terrence graham. >> if the court rules in terrence's favor, about 100 persons who committed crimes as adolescents will benefit by getting a chance to show some day that they have changed. and that's all we're asking for. not for immediate release, but for a chance to show that the
kid has changed. >> reporter: in court, gowdy pointed to a landmark supreme court ruling four years ago, in which the justices rejected the death penalty for juvenile offenders, relying heavily on evidence showing that juveniles use a different part of the brain in the decision-making process, making them more likely to act irrationally, less likely to appreciate the consequences of what they do. several justices observed that that was a death penalty case. and death is different. >> death is different, but not in any critical respect when you're talking about an adolescent. both sentences condemn the adolescent to die in prison, both give up on the kid, both determine that the adolescent can't be changed, and both say that based on an adolescent mistake. you can never live in civil society. >> reporter: the attorney for florida said the state's sentencing practices were aimed at addressing a serious crime problem, and that such policy decisions should not be second guessed by federal judges. >> that's a quintessential state judgment.
21 states have said no to parole and our position is that the court shouldn't impose something on the states that the states themselves have rejected. >> reporter: chief justice john roberts proposed a compromise requiring judges and juries to consider a defendant's youth, but allowing life without parole in extreme cases. defense lawyers dismissed the idea as too little. conservatives on the court dismissed it as too much. meanwhile, back in florida, kenneth young and more than a hundred other prison inmates nationwide serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children got some support from what might seem to be an unlikely source. the judge who sentenced young, j. rogers padgett, has come out against laws that deny parole to juveniles in non-homicide cases. >> if i went and talked to kenneth, i might have sympathy too, because i firmly believe the department of corrections ought to be given the latitude to determine when these people
are ready to go. what do i know? at the time of sentencing, i'm doing a snapshot. so what do i know. >> reporter: the justices appeared sharply divided, making any decision unlikely before the end of the term next june. for "religion and ethics newsweekly," i'm tim o'brien in washington. >> abernethy: in othenews, the >> abernethy: in other news, the swine flu continues to vex religious communities that fear that when their people gather, they could spread the virus to each other.
but in italy, one catholic inventor says he has a solution. he has created an automatic dispenser for holy water. it allows believers to receive a handful of the water without dipping their fingers into a commal font. several churches in italy already have installed the device, and orders have been flooding in from all over the world. >> abernethy: in utah, newly approved legislation banning discrimination against gays got support from the church of jesus christ of latter day saints, the mormons. the mormon backing came as a surprise to some gays since the church has been so vocal in its opposition to gay marriage. but church leaders said the ban against dicrimination in housing and employment was quote "fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage." in washington, religion scholar karen armstrong and other faith leaders unveiled an interfaith
effort called the "charter for compassion." the charter is endorsed by the dalai lama and desmond tutu among others. it is a call to action for fai communities and others to focus on shared traditions of empathy. armstrong said her hope is that the charter will remind people that all religions have an imperative to treat others compassionately. now, a special story of life, grief and faith. in 2002, we aired a profile of the young best-selling poet mattie stepanek and his mother jeni. they both suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. the messages of hope and peace in mattie's writings inspired millions of people around the world. mattie died in 2004, but jeni is working to keep his memory alive. she talked with kim lawton about how her faith gives her the strength to move forward.
>> reporter: it's standing room only at the border's bookstore in bethesda, maryland, where jeni stepanek is talking about her new book called "messenger." the book is about her son mattie, the "new york times" best-selling inspirational poet who died five years ago at the age of 13. mattie had a rare form of muscular dystrophy-- the same disease that afflicts jeni. this is the store where mattie had launched his books too, and the fact that he's not here tonight highlights the loss that's still raw. >> since he died, i've hit some very, very low points. i have had mornings where i'm not quite sure what the sane reason is to bother getting out of bed. i always find one, and if i can't find one, what i've learned is to allow other people to give me a sane reason to get out of bed. >> reporter: one of jeni's biggest reasons for getting out
of bed every day is her quest to keep mattie's legacy alive. in his short life, mattie wrote six books of poetry and a collection of essays that he collaborated on with jimmy carter. he became a friend to the rich and famous and touched millions of people around the world with his message of hope and peace. >> god gives me hope that there is something greater than us, something better and bigger than the here and now that can help us live. >> reporter: mattie told us in an interview, seven years ago, that he believed god had a plan for his life. >> i feel that god has given me a very special opportunity that i should not let go to waste. use the gift he has given me. >> reporter: jeni says from the time he was just a little boy, mattie told her god was putting messages in his heart. >> and i began to get concerned, actually, and ask him questions like "are you hearing voices?
is god's voice a man's voice or a woman's voice?" and he looked at me like i had lost my mind. and he said "mommy, god's voice is not like this, it's a message in my heart." >> reporter: mattie believed god wanted him to give voice to those messages, and he did that through his poems, which he called his "heartsongs." jeni says there were several basic themes. >> hope is real. peace is possible and life is worthy. the best i can understand it, is that it really is the universal truth. it's what jesus christ taught us, it's what gandhi teaches us, it's what martin luther king teaches us, it's what any good speaker, any peacemaker teaches us: in giving, we shall receive, in doing good, good happens. >> reporter: since mattie died, jeni has gotten thousands of letters and emails from people who say he continues to inspire them. there's even a grassroots movement of people who want the roman catholic church to open an official investigation into
whether mattie should be recognized as a saint. >> i have had people who have contacted me to say they believe mattie has interceded in their lives. they believe that mattie has healed their child or touched their spirit, or turned them back to god, or prevented them from suicide. >> reporter: as the mom of a kid who loved practical jokes and didn't always make his bed, she finds it all humbling, and, a bit overwhelming. >> i feel the responsibility to share with people the truth of my son's life. what i don't want people doing is thinking, "oh, mattie," you know. and putting him up on a pedestal: he's a little guru; he was perfect; he never got angry; he never got sad; he only spoke bits of wisdom. i mean, he wasn't, that's not who mattie was. >> reporter: jeni chairs a foundation named for mattie that tries to make his message as accessible as possible. there are school curriculum
projects based on mattie's writings, and parks like this one in rockville, maryland that has a life-sized statue of mattie and his beloved service dog, micah, who is now jeni's. jeni herself has also become an inspiration to many. mattie was her fourth child to die of the disease that she didn't even know she was carrying. >> when i was having these children, i did not know i was going to give birth to children with this condition. when i was having children, i was apparently healthy, active, running two to five miles a day, coaching and playing sports, working on my first doctoral degree. >> reporter: she was diagnosed when mattie was nearly two, after her oldest two children had already died and her third child was also dying from the disease. she and her husband divorced, so her focus became being a single mom. >> so even though you grieve the loss of your child... when there's still another living
child-- not that the grief isn't there, but you have to focus on celebrating life with that child, with the one that's still alive. when mattie died, that's when the grief became so overwhelming, because where do you put your mommy role? >> reporter: jeni says her catholic faith helped her cope. and she says despite some times of questioning god, her faith has grown dramatically. >> i'm very good at-- through prayer-- giving god a to-do list. all right? dear god, this is where i need you and this is how you can meet my needs. and i give god the little to-do list, and i think i began to realize towards the end of mattie's life, prayer is not just giving god your wishes. it's asking to bring god into whatever the moments are in my day. >> reporter: she also has a close circle of friends, chief among them her roommate sandy newcomb and sandy's extended
family, whom mattie called their "kin family." jeni says they've made all the difference in her life. >> i'd like to think in some way that my support of jeni and mattie has helped them to be able to do what god wants them to do. >> reporter: jeni's own health continues to deteriorate. sheays the most difficult thing is giving up independence and control. >> it's really hard knowing i will always be the passenger in a car. i will never be driving again. that's a really, really tough thing when i'm a doer, a giver, a be-er. and you have to be the recipient and call someone and ask them to do something for you. that's a tough lesson for me. >> reporter: although people tell her they've felt mattie's spirit, jeni never has. >> and what i would give to have my son come and stand and just say "hi" or "yo," just say anything, just touch me. but i know that that would be
wrong. and i think that my son is wiser than that. because if my son came and spoke to me or touched me, and i knew without doubt this is my son, i so miss him, that i'm afraid i'd never emotionally or physically be able to move from that spot. >> reporter: she says near the end of his life, mattie knew he was dying and tried to prepare her. but she couldn't accept it. >> it was one of my mommy decisions that i regret. you know, i should've just put my arm around him and said that must be really difficult, you must feel very alone. i just... i couldn't tend to it, and i feel very badly. i will forever feel badly about that. but i don't think he holds that against me, i think he knew that i was being a mommy. >> reporter: still, she says mattie gave her the hope and
faith to move forward. >> he said when i'm gone, promise me you will chose to inhale, not breathe merely to exist. and that means finding some worthy reason to move into each next moment. and that's the most difficult choice i face every single day. but it's the most worthy choicen >> reporter: she says she's learned that it's not how long you live that matters, but the depth with which you live those days. i'm kim lawton in rockville, maryland. >> abernethy: in addition to chairing the mattie stepanek foundation, jeni is a consultant on working with the families of sick children. that's our program for now. i'm bob abernethy. we have much more on our web site. you can read and watch more of kim lawton's interview with jeni stepanek, and you can comment on all of our stories and share them. audio and video podcastsre also available.